Monday, May 7, 2012

Foreign Policy Theater of the Absurd

A Russian general has threatened military action if the US and its NATO allies go ahead and build a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe: “A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” say Russian chief of staff Nikolai Makarov. That the “shield” is of dubious effectiveness, and is mainly a cash cow for US defense companies, are not factors the Russkies are willing to take into consideration: their main beef seems to be the implied insult of Washington claiming the shield isn’t designed to protect against future aggression emanating from Moscow, but against an alleged Iranian missile threat to Europe. Hey, they seem to be saying: what about us? Aren’t we a threat, too?

Well, no – they aren’t. Russia’s population is falling rapidly, and their economy isn’t doing too hot, either. What the oligarchs didn’t loot and spirit out of the country has been either seized and mismanaged by the state, or else is part of the burgeoning black market. The last thing Moscow needs is an empire: they can barely manage what they already have. That hasn’t stopped Washington from manufacturing a phony narrative that imagines a “resurgent Russia” motivated by revanchism and a desire to refight the cold war.

So here we have the spectacle of a phony threat being uttered as a response to yet another phony threat: the Russians aren’t going to preemptively attack Poland, and neither they nor the Iranians represent a real danger to the West. Yet the actors in this little drama are intent on playing out their roles to the end, no matter how disconnected from reality their actions and pronouncements may seem.

Welcome to the foreign policy Theater of the Absurd.

While this absurdist trend has long dominated our domestic politics, it is lately taking over the foreign policy realm: just look at the machinations over Chen Guangchen, the blind Chinese dissident who can’t seem to make up his mind about where he wants to live. First he escapes from house arrest and travels hundreds of miles to the US embassy in Beijing, where he claims asylum. Then he leaves the embassy, saying he doesn’t want to live in exile – but changes his mind almost as soon as he’s out the door, demanding from his hospital bed to be flown “in Hillary Clinton’s plane” to the US with his family. His latest stunt: phoning his demands in to US congressional hearings, with Republican legislators at the other end of the line. This has our State Department in the uncomfortable position of negotiating not only with the Chinese authorities but also with Chen, hoping he will shut up long enough for the public to forget how they allowed themselves to become his captive.